The 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan not only stood out as the first to feature women’s hockey but also as the first to allow NHL stars to play for their countries. At the end of the 18th Winter Games, on February 22, the Czech Republic won their first ever gold medal in ice hockey.
When the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expired in 1994, the ensuing lockout lasted half the season as players and management negotiated. Players felt that it was important to represent their countries in the Olympics, so the January 1995 agreement allowed the NHL to shut down for 17 days every four years. The first time they had the chance to do so was in February 1998.
Naturally, the Canadians, who had complained for years that their best players were barred from the Olympics, stocked their team with 23 NHL stars (like Wayne Gretzky). This made them the favorites to win. The runners-up were the Americans, who had seen a rise in interest thanks to the 1980 Olympics and the 1996 World Cup finals, and they had also filled their team from the NHL. However, thanks to the NHL opening up to European players throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the playing field was more even. Russia chose 22 of its 23 players from the NHL, while the Czech Republic’s team was about half NHL. Sweden, Finland, and Slovakia also had NHL players on their teams. These NHL stars would have to get used to the international rules and the larger ice used for the Olympics.
For the first round, the eight weakest teams were divided into two groups to play round robin. Some of these teams were at a disadvantage because the NHL players were not released early enough. The winning team from each group (Kazakhstan and Belarus) went on to play the top six teams (Canada, Russia, Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland, and U.S.) for the second round robin. These eight teams were again divided in two to play three games each. However, no one would be eliminated in order to give everyone time to acclimatize to the time zone and their new teammates. Instead, the positions at the end of the round would determine the quarter-final matchups. The Russians and Canadians each went undefeated followed by the Czech Republic and Sweden, each with two wins and one tie.
The four quarter-final games were played on February 18. These were playoff-style, so the winners advanced while the losers were eliminated. Unsurprisingly, Russia defeated Belarus and Canada defeated Kazakhstan, each with a score of 4-1. Thanks to two goals by Teemu Selanne of the Mighty Ducks, Finland edged out arch-rival Sweden 2-1. The Swedes faced quite the controversy because New York Ranger Ulf Samuelsson’s U.S. passport nullified his Swedish citizenship, and he had to leave the team. With the largest attendance, of 9,822, the Czech Republic defeated the U.S. 4-1. In response, to Americans’ embarrassment, three to five U.S. players caused $3,000-worth of damage at the Athletes’ Village, prompting a NHL investigation.
The four remaining teams played the semi-finals on February 20. Russia handedly defeated Finland 7-4. The Canada-Czech game remained scoreless until Pavel Patera scored midway through the third period, but Trevor Linden tied the game during the final 63 seconds. The Czech team ran down the clock in overtime to push for a shootout. Robert Reichel of the New York Islanders shot first for the Czech Republic and “scored when his shot bounced off the stick-side post and in” past Patrick Roy of the Colorado Avalanche, in his only international competition. Then it was all up to Czech goalie Dominik Hasek of the Buffalo Sabres. He blocked Theo Fleury, Ray Bourque, Joe Nieuwendyk, Eric Lindros, and finally Brendan Shanahan. The Czechs defeated the Canadian superstars with a final score of 2-1.
The next day, Canada and Finland played each other for the bronze medal. Despite a team full of NHL stars, the Canadians lost 3-2 and failed to medal. Three of the top ten scorers played for bronze-winning Finland, including Selanne.
On February 22, the Czech Republic and Russia played for gold and silver. The game drew a crowd of 10,010, the highest but for the Canada-U.S. game in the second round. Although North American media thought the Czechs would not have any defense but for Hasek, they turned out to have the strongest defense of all. Hasek, described as a “floppy, unpredictable, wildly unbeatable goalie,” would only have a 0.97 goals-against throughout all six games. After the Russians built up a 9-6 shot advantage, Hasek said, “Maybe the Russian team was better in the first period. But after the first period, we were the better team. . . . The Russian team has speed, but we kept stopping them in the neutral zone.” Hasek and his teammates successfully held off the Russians.
The only score of the game occurred about halfway through the third period when Czech defector Petr Svoboda of the Philadelphia Flyers made a “lucky” goal on goalie Mikhail Shtalenkov of the Mighty Ducks. At 32, he was the second-oldest on the team, but since he had defected 14 years earlier, this was his first time playing with the Czech national team. After making his only Olympic goal, Svoboda thought of his father, who had been fired when Svoboda defected. “But I know how happy I felt, and I’m sure he [father] felt even happier.” The Czechs had won their first gold medal with a score of 1-0.
After the medal ceremony Hasek commented, “When I saw the flag go up, I saw my whole career flash before my eyes from the first time my parents took me to a hockey game until now.” His teammate, Robert Reichel of the New York Islanders, proclaimed, “We’ve got the gold medal; we don’t care about the money. We care about this. It’s never happened before.”
Czech president Vaclav Havel came with his presidential jet to bring the team back to Prague. He personally invited Svoboda to return with them. The following day, Prague held a victory parade attended by over a million people.
Since then, the Czech Republic (with Hasek still on the team) also won a bronze medal in the 2006 Winter Olympics held at Turin, Italy. The NHL played in every Olympics up until 2018.
- Andrew Podnieks, Where Countries Come to Play (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2013), kindle version.
- “World Beaters,” Boston Globe, 23 Feb. 1998, p. D1 and D8.